"Sal, we gotta go and never stop going 'till we get there". "Where we going man?" "I don't know but we gotta go" - Jack Kerouac, On the Road -

Friday, August 30, 2013

Day 24: Craters of the Moon

Arco, Id - Ketchum, Id: 111 miles. Total: 2885 miles

The only way to stay ahead of the wind is to leave early, basically even before sunrise. 12 hours on the bike and a few hours of sleep and then back on the bike, is it humanly possible? It is but it is also insane. The pattern is simple: the wind picks up after 10,11 am , this has been confirmed the tattoo-covered guy at the gas station. He is sporting a goatee that De Niro in Jacknife would be proud of. I try to follow his advice but yesterday has been a punishing day and these efforts leave a mark which will bubble up sooner or later. After my two atomic burgers, I plunge into a deep sleep until I open my eyes for a split second when the alarm goes off at 6AM. I immediately go back to my happy sleep but a while I bolt thinking "Oh shit! It must be 10 am!" but it is still 6.35. At this point I find the strength to get up and get dressed. First thing I do is to check the wind like I am some captain on a ship. The air is still and Arco is an empty town. I walk to the gas station where I eat five fruit bars and two bananas and with some apprehension I venture out in the desert again. The day is breaking and cycling totally alone in the desert. Insane but beautiful. The air is chilly and I am tempted to wear the rain cover but I put a little speed in my step and that should get me covered. The sun wrestles with some large clouds before winning the argument and it comes out to play. The first 20 miles go smooth; I ride alone through a rugged landscape, an arid and rocky desert that gives you nothing but time to think how to survive it. I come across a panorama of buttes and sinks and weird piles of stone and they all belong to a 'national monument'. An hour gone and I hit a fascinating landmark: Craters of the Moon. This is a very peculiar place, I guess if someone saw it from above they would see a large black stain in the middle of the desert, just like a huge oil spill in the middle of the ocean. Craters of the Moon is cinder cones, spatter cones and lava caves created by volcanic explosions. I learn an interesting fact, Craters is Yellowstone stage two, meaning that Yellowstone will look exactly like Craters when the caldera explodes and sooner or later it will explode. It is really funny because there is so much lava around and there is no volcano, in fact the lava oozes from cracks on the earth crust that are 50 mile long. Crazy! In the next life I will be a geologist.  Maybe not.

The whole place I am riding through is a big Rift, in many ways similar to the Rift Valley in Africa. How the emigrants travel through this impossible land it boggles my mind. Check this out:  "Road all rocks in several places, some so large as to scarcely pass under the wagon. At one place we were obliged to drive over a huge rock just a little wider than the wagon. Had we gone a foot to the right or to the left, the wagon would have rolled over. The road was very crooked, as it followed along the edge of the hills most of the time, this being the only route possible on account of this black rock...such roads and surrounding country beggars description." (Julius Merrill, 1864). I find it fascinating that thousands of people labored through this land with all their belongings. This part of Idaho is actually not only geologically unique but it is also historically important. Westward-bound emigrants traveled through this valley following the ocean-to-ocean route which was perfected by pioneers in 1843, that's when the first wagons rolled through. They fought sagebrush, dust, mosquitoes, lava rocks, cold nights and the threat of Native American populations. Soon after the gold seekers followed and the route, which is now called the Oregon trail, was well traveled. Of course they stood on the shoulders of Lewis and Clark. 
At Craters, I ride around the 7-mile loop and then I quickly rejoin highway 26 to Carey. Easy 15 miles but I notice that the wind is gradually gaining force. Yep, it is coming. I take some comfort in seeing the road hanging to my right and leading into a large valley where the desert mountains might help decrease the strength of the gales. Not really. After some food at Carey the wind is fully fledged and I begin to curse. I emit some pretty good curse words that do nothing to ridicule or neutralize the wind. Just when I thought I had ridden the whole of the Great Plains relatively unscathed, the desert of Idaho gives the wind a chance to come back with a vengeance. Blowing from South West it is almost a full headwind and it slows down my ride to the point that I am beginning to doubt everything. It is as strong as yesterday. At least today I have plenty of water with me and the distance between towns is manageable. The problem with the wind is not only in the decreased speed and mileage, the real problem is that the sucker takes every energy out of you because if to ride 15mph without wind you put in 50, with a headwind you must put in 100 to ride 10mph. And for the urban cyclists who are reading this, take note that the wind I am experiencing is not the funny breeze that you ride into on the local bike path. I am in the desert here, the road is totally exposed and this is a wind that shakes buildings and moves mountains, literally. I am fighting for every pedal stroke, for every yard, I push hard just to get a little speed. I trudge, I crawl, I grind out one mile after another, there is absolutely no joy in cycling like this. No joy at all. It is total punishment. And I cannot wait for more mountains.

I crawl into the rest area at the junction with route 75, the Sawtooth Scenic Byway. I gulp down two frozen Pepsi, and I don't even like it that much but extreme situations instill weird knacks in you. I have already covered 75 miles and I figure the worst is over. In a way it is because I have some steep hills to my right and I head for those like an alcoholic would follow a trail of empty bottles. In a heartbeat I decide to take 75 instead of going west on 20; 75 will put a long delay into my schedule because it is not as direct as 20 and most importantly it will go through some steep mountains, but I don't really care, 75 goes north and I won't have to deal with this bitch of a headwind. What's ever more appealing about 75 and I can't believe I am saying this, it is that it leads right into the mountains and goes up, up, up to the Galena Pass at 8700ft high. Yes, that means that I will be back into the mountains, back climbing steep grades and fighting cold temperatures but as I said, I'd do anything to lose the wind.

I leave the desert plateau behind and 75 drops into a valley. The scenery immediately begins to change. Scrub bush hills are turning into proper mountains, the air goes from dry and hot to cool and full of mountain fragrance. However, I notice that the hillsides are not covered with trees but they actually totally burnt out. At this point I recall a conversation I had with a truck driver in Carey and he tells me about the fires that hit the Sun Valley just two weeks ago. The flames destroyed swathes of land, trees and bushes and forced many roads to shut down. The road should be open now. It is. But all over the place there are reminders of the recent catastrophe. After a few miles on 75 I begin to see several thank-you to our brave firefighters sign all over the place. 

The last part of the day goes really fast thanks to a beautifully placed bike path, which allows me to stay away from traffic. After the stress caused by the desert biking I can finally drop my guard and chill. I zone out and put my headphones on and Bono's soulful voice accompanies me for a few miles. The ride is bumpy though, deep cracks run across the path every 10 yards or so. The path is a rails-to-trails and follows the Snake river, I notice that the valley is gradually narrowing and before I reach my final destination for the day I am riding right at the base of steep slopes that depart vertically from both sides. The path takes me right into Sun Valley where the Sawtooth Mountains await. I imagine this place to be really pretty with the tress and lush vegetation, however, the recent fires have given the hillsides an almost eerie façade. I reach Ketchum thinking about mother nature and singing out loud but before I look around town for a motel I ride to the cemetery where E. Hemingway is buried. Ernest was a keen fly fisherman and spent his last years in Ketchum before he realized that he couldn't write anymore and he blew his brains out. I wonder what that's like, to have a unique gift and in the middle of your life just to realize that the gift is gone but the fire is still there.

Ketchum is in the heart of the famous Sun Valley, where supposedly many movie stars live. It is clear that the place is ritzy and oozing with money. It is also crawling with tourists who probably do want to see movie stars or want to look like movie stars. I don't want to stay here at all. I miss Arco, what a lovingly peaceful small town it was. I find a pretty and reasonably priced motel by the highway. After a long shower and my journal updating when I open the door to my room I am immediately hit by a smoke smell and little tiny pieces of ash fly down from the mountains and float lightly in the air. The whole place looks like a battle field with silent guns and with smoke still rising. I barely make out the setting sun through the haze. My throat goes dry and my eyes itch from the ash. I talk to the lady that runs the place and she tells me that two weeks ago they had an evacuation notice. Two weeks ago you could walk around without glasses and a cloth wrapped around your nose and mouth. Now it is all on stand by even though the fires should be out. But who knows? She tells me that I should check tomorrow morning with the tourist information, if road 75 is closed I have to ride back 30 miles to the junction and then 85 miles through the desert again and into a certain headwind to Mountain Home. This would be the only other way west. Not appealing at all. I take climbing mountains to riding into a wind any time. I immediately call the local tourist office and at this late hour the recorded message says that the fires have been contained and the road through the forest and up the pass is open but visitors should check before going.
As much as I didn't want to stop in the Sun Valley, which I guess can be described as a smaller version of Aspen, I am grateful to this place and its surrounding mountains because they got the wind off my...face! But tomorrow, fires permitting, is business again, I have some serious climbing to do. The West coast seems still so very far.


  1. mannaggia, quanto mi urta 'sto vento!

  2. I read your entire blog and as usual I find your commentary interesting and entertaining. I hope that your plan to get away from the bitch wind does not end up screwing you over because you have to back track. But I have to tell you I am so distracted by the Hemingway fact that I have to comment because his reason for ending his life is so lame and immature. For those of us who can't or could ever write or sing or dance or paint or act or any of that tortured artsy stuff, what are we to deduce from their suicides. Are our lives less fulfilled or satisfying because we do not possess some divine given talent or are we just more able to find satisfaction in mediocre ordinary lives because we have more practice at doing so? I don't know how you can have so much and still be so unhappy. Suck it up like the rest of us and look for what is important in life. Ok, I'm done now! Back to the real show. Let's conquer Idaho and get to the Pacific.